Spotlight: Degenerate Art Ensemble

The Degenerate Art Ensemble brings virtuous performance art to the Moore Theatre

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The Degenerate Art Ensemble brings virtuous performance art to the Moore Theatre

Sonic Tales
The Moore Theatre
October 30–31

Sonic Tales, the new experimental theater/music/dance performance by Seattle’s Degenerate Art Ensemble (DAE), features a slug princess, a Ninja battle, a drum robot and supernatural demons.

The performance is perhaps not one DAE cofounders and classically trained musicians Haruko Nishimura and Joshua Kohl could have ever imagined when they met as students (Kohl, a classical guitar major, and Nishimura, on her way toward becoming a concert pianist) at Boston’s esteemed New England Conservatory. The two fell in love, married, moved to Seattle in 1991 and attended Cornish College of the Arts (where Kohl earned his degree in composition).

Somewhere along that timeline their musical priorities shifted. Nishimura, born in Japan and raised in a traditional family that expected her to become a competitive concert pianist, felt compelled to break out and find her own voice. Or as Kohl jokingly puts it, “Haruko went nuts and became a butoh dancer.” Butoh is the 1950s avant-garde Japanese dance form (marked by its practitioners’ use of white body paint) that finds its way into DAE performances. “It evokes so much emotion,” Nishimura says. “It’s a visceral connection with the viewer—disturbing and spine-chillingly beautiful.”

Kohl, born in California to artsy parents (“They were pretty out there,” he laughs), changed directions when a debilitating hand injury forced him to dive into composition. He composes much of the experimental music used in DAE’s performances, sometimes inventing new instruments to fulfill his innovative scores.

The two began their performance collaborations in 1993, starting a 17-piece orchestra called the Young Composers Collective. “We were hanging out with a really interesting group of dancers and jazz musicians,” says Kohl, “so we put together an orchestra that played original big-band music and contemporary classical.” Their shows evolved to include more dance and theatrics. By 1999 the group’s membership had changed, and as Kohl puts it, “We found our vision.” They renamed themselves the Degenerate Art Ensemble—after the Degenerate Art exhibit of 1937 (organized by the Nazis to deride modernist, non-German art)—and began collaborating with an ever-shifting group of musicians and artists on live experimental music/dance/theater shows.